Prokofiev’s meeting with the young Rostropovich in 1948 was to prove significant, not just for the two of them, but for the musical world in general. Thanks to the influence of the dynamic young cellist – and one can only assume that his charms, both musical and bear-huggingly personal, were as irresistible then as they are today – Prokofiev’s last works include an outpouring of works for the cello: the revision of his Cello Concerto Op.58, retitled Symphony - Concerto under the new opus number of 125; the Cello Sonata Op.119; an unfinished Sonata for solo cello (Op.133); and the similarly unfinished Concertino, Op.132. In the case of the solo cello sonata, a substantial portion of the opening Andante was finished, and the movement was excellently, to my mind, completed by the Russian musicologist, composer and Prokofiev enthusiast Vladimir Blok; and a Fugue has been performed, but never recorded, by Rostropovich. Evidently, however, not enough of the rest of the work was written, or even mapped out, to make a posthumous completion possible.
The case of the Concertino was different; here, completion was not only possible, but eminently desirable! Prokofiev had written out the exposition and development of the first movement, and the whole of the slow movement, in piano score, and he had given Rostropovich enough idea of his plans for the last movement for the latter to complete it on the lines envisioned by the ailing composer. The orchestration, however, was barely sketched; for that, Rostropovich handed the score to Kabalevsky.
Prokofiev had spoken about the “delicate” Concertino that he was planning to write; considerably less challenging technically for the cellist than the fearsome Symphony - Concerto (or, for that matter, than the equally testing Concerto, Op.58), it was presumably intended as a vehicle for student cellists as much as for Rostropovich himself. It is not a “great” work – it is not trying to be one! It is what it is: tuneful, amusing, appealing. The first movement opens with a brooding melody exploring the darker regions of the cello; the second subject, in complete contrast, brings out the sun. The slow movement is relaxed, lyrical, with perhaps a touch of irony; as in the sonata for cello and piano, one can feel, in the aftermath of the 1948 trials, Prokofiev’s genuine desire to write accessible music mixed with a certain detachment, a musical raised eyebrow. The last movement opens with a gruffly humorous melody taken from the Symphony - Concerto (one of the few major themes from that work not derived from the Concerto, Op.58); the second subject, like that of the first movement, is charming, innocent.
Rostropovich’s completion of the work is thoroughly respectful, and quite satisfying. Of course, one feels that the themes of the last movement would have been more highly developed had Prokofiev lived to complete it, but Rostropovich has been scrupulous and skilful in following the stated intentions of the composer. It is no secret that Rostropovich provided some passages for the other works which Prokofiev wrote for him, passages that the composer would then adapt as he saw fit; no-one could have been more closely involved with Prokofiev’s last compositions than the young cellist. Performed with piano, the Concertino comes across as an attractive addition to the cello repertoire. However, in my opinion – and this is a highly subjective view, one which I don’t think that Rostropovich himself necessarily shares – Kabalevsky’s over-heavy orchestration obscures the subtle charms of the work.
I learnt the piece for my first-ever recital, when I was 14, and fell in love with it. (I remember my mother oohing and aahing as she tried out the wonderful opening melody on the piano; it is an oohable, aahable theme!) When I came to give my first performance of it with orchestra a couple of years later, however, I was disappointed; it wasn’t so much a question of the balance between cello and orchestra being a problem – although that was a problem – so much as a musical deficiency. The beauties of the Concertino were swamped, it seemed to me, by the army of percussion, the heavy brass, the thick scoring in general. In 1987, I recorded Kabalevsky’s exciting Cello Concerto No.2 with Andrew Litton and the LPO. I was looking for a coupling, and thought of the Concertino, with its Kabalevsky connection; so we added that to the disc (as well as the Prokofiev/Blok Andante for solo cello). Andrew Litton was as frustrated as I was with the orchestration, so we made a few minor changes, removing unnecessary doublings and transferring the opening of the last movement – obviously a wind-instrument phrase – from the violins to the clarinet. More significantly, I asked my friend Olli Mustonen to write a new cadenza for the first movement and he obliged with a truly marvellous one, absolutely faithful to the spirit of the Concertino, but completely fresh and original. (To my everlasting shame, I left out a few notes of the cadenza in the recording, mea culpa, but Olli was very good about it.) After we’d made the recording, although I was glad to have recorded the Concertino, I was bothered by the fact that we’d recorded it in a compromised version and I couldn’t shake off the thought that something far more radical was needed for the body of the work.
I had first got to know the name of Vladimir Blok through his completion of the little Andante for solo cello. After that, I occasionally saw his name in connection with Prokofiev, or with other composers for whom he and I evidently shared an enthusiasm, such as Martinu and Grieg, and eventually I managed to get his Moscow address. I wrote to him in 1994, thanking him for the completion of the Andante, and sending him my recording of it. Having established contact, I sounded him out on the possibility of his re-scoring the Concertino. He replied immediately – or as immediately as the Russian postal system would allow – expressing his enthusiasm for the idea: “your idea of a new orchestration of Prokofiev concertino is very interesting. I agree with your opinion – Kabalevsky’s score is bad” (10 August, 1994). He suggested two possibilities: a re-scoring for symphony orchestra, or for chamber orchestra. For me, the chamber orchestra idea was far more interesting, for practical as well as musical reasons.
We corresponded regularly over the next couple of years, talking not only about the Concertino (although that did involve an astonishing amount of consultation), but also about other ideas that he, in his boundless inventiveness and enthusiasm, was constantly dreaming up, one being an orchestration of the Grieg cello sonata which he thought would work brilliantly. I also played one of his original compositions, a “Tribute to Armenia”, when I gave a recital in Erevan in 1995. We became rather unusual penfriends, in fact!
Having roped Vladimir in, the next step was to talk to Boosey & Hawkes to see if they were interested in the idea. To my delight, they were forthcoming; a meeting was set up between Janis Susskind and Tony Pool (of Boosey), Oleg Prokofiev and myself to discuss it. Janis, Tony and I duly met in the publishers’ offices and waited for Oleg. After fifteen minutes or so, Tony decided to call Oleg's wife, Frances, to establish Oleg’s whereabouts. (So short a time ago but still well before mobile phones were as common as watches.) Tony was a little surprised to find the phone answered by Oleg himself, who had forgotten all about our appointment! Anyway, he made it eventually, and the project progressed. I was excited – as so many people must have been in similar situations – to be discussing the music of Prokofiev (who seems to me such a distant figure) with his son. Something to tell my grandchildren!
Having got Boosey & Hawkes on our side, we had to find an orchestra and a concert date. That enterprising body, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, came on board, agreeing to commission the new version (in partnership with Boosey & Hawkes) thanks largely to my friend Mark Wigglesworth, then music director. Slightly ironic, of course, that this new chamber orchestra version should finally be commissioned and premiered by a symphony orchestra, but they played it with reduced forces. The final version was for double woodwinds, 2 horns, trumpet, percussion (2 players) and strings. There had been slight tension when Vladimir came up with various ideas for extra colour, such as chamber organ, accordions or even a synthesiser! But in the end, he settled for an optional piano part. The opening phrase of the last movement, which Andrew Litton and I had assigned to the clarinet, was given to the flute; initially suspicious, I had to admit when I heard it that it worked very well. Vladimir also made some changes to Rostropovich’s and Kabalevsky’s earlier completion, including a somewhat different key structure at the end of the first movement; he thought that this accorded better with Prokofiev's intentions than the printed version.
The whole business had taken two years to sort out, but finally all was clear. The first performance was set for April 1997, and on 1 July 1996, Vladimir wrote to me, full of enthusiasm and ideas, saying that he was going to do the work in July and August in his bungalow outside Moscow. The next letter was a shock, however; it came from Valeria Blok, Vladimir’s violist wife, and was dated 14 September: “Dear Steven, with deep regret I inform you that Vladimir died on 28 August after a difficult operation. Up to hospital he had time to make the 2nd and 3rd movements of Prokofieff Concertino, and the first one he made in hospital [...] Only I ask you, Vladimir very wanted, that you play the Concertino – it is his last work and also I would like, that his dream is come true”.
So I would never meet the man with whom I had had such extensive correspondence, nor would he ever hear the fruits of his labours. (It is sad to think how many deaths occur in this story. The first time I ever played the Andante for solo cello was at the funeral of Lina Prokofiev; far too soon after that I was playing at Oleg’s funeral). I gave the first performance on 11 April 1997 in Cardiff, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Mark Wigglesworth; it was broadcast live on the BBC so that I was able to send a tape to Valeria. She wrote to me on 3 May: “Thank you very much for the tape [...]. My friends and I often listen to the music and enjoy it very much”. A poignant ending to the little story.
So far, I can’t really say that chamber orchestras have jumped at the chance to add the work to their repertoire. I have played the Blok edition of the Concertino in Britain and in Germany; and I am delighted that Alexander Ivashkin chose to record this version in his survey of Prokofiev’s works for cello and orchestra for Chandos. Apart from those, though, I have not heard of any other performances. 2003 is approaching, however or, to be more strictly accurate, we are approaching Prokofiev 2003 and perhaps the Concertino, along with a whole host of other Prokofiev works, will finally receive its due.